Swap out the setting, the format, and the central characters' gender in most every major sports movie, plop in a bit more vaseline on the camera lens and some soft, tearful music, and you pretty much have the formula for every single movie ever put on the Lifetime network. Hey guys? Sports movies are weepies for dudes. The thrill of competition and victory is a direct, bromantic analog to the roller coaster ride of relational emotions. These movies are about Feelings, dammit.
Want proof? Examine the body of work by director Gavin O'Connor. Previously, he made men into pillowy, sobbing messes with Miracle, his fantastic dramatization of the 1980 USA Hockey Team's rise to glory over the much-favored Russian national team. With that film, you could at least pretend it was all about the victory, and that you were just tearing up because of patriotism and America and bald eagles and what have you. But in Warrior, O'Connor's family drama set against the backdrop of mixed martial arts, there's no angling out of this one. Warrior is a sob story about a family torn apart by alcohol, abuse, and unwillingness to forgive. It's also about men beating the living shit out of each other for over two hours. If you're one of those manly men types who revels in masculine violence, and shudders at the thought of emotional outbursts that don't involve manly war cries, you probably won't know what to do with yourself by the time Warrior wraps up.
While Warrior's plot is the stuff of TV movie-of-the-week cheesiness, O'Connor shows he knows how to turn material like this into a winner. He starts with his central performers, Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy. These are great actors, each giving subtle, nuanced emotions to men that might otherwise be treated as meatsacks by another director. They are Brendan and Tommy, respectively. Brendan is middle-aged, a former UFC undercard performer who has tucked tail and retreated to family life, working as a high school physics teacher and resorting to occasional strip club parking lot MMA tournaments to make his mortgage payments. Tommy is a former marine, who suddenly appears on the doorstep of his formerly alcoholic father (Nick Nolte). He's seemingly running from something, using his mother's maiden name, and wants nothing to do with his dad or his brother. But after knocking out an MMA virtuoso during a sparring match at a local gym, Tommy decides to enlist his wayward father's assistance in training him for an upcoming tournament, a 16-man grand prix event with a $5 million prize.
If you've seen the trailers for Warrior, you've arguably seen too much. You know that both Brendan and Tommy end up in the tournament, and will eventually fight each other. They have to, otherwise why make both these characters MMA fighters with a strained brotherly relationship in the same tournament? It's screenwriting 101.
As is much of Warrior. The beats here are rote, predictable, and at times, more than a little silly. The sheer amount of adversity Brendan must climb over to reach his goal is ludicrous, and Tommy's rage is so blatantly in-your-face that it's practically an impossibility for the movie to end without him somehow coming to terms with something. This is a script that could have turned into mediocre, cheeseball trash, but O'Connor doesn't let it.
That Edgerton and Hardy are so good in their roles, so authentic in their performances, is a big factor in this film's success. Hardy's brooding anger feels less petulant and more tortured. After a while, you really start to feel for the guy, even as he's shunning every helpful face around him. Edgerton plays his suburban dad with a fist of stone with a lower key than another actor might. This isn't Rocky, full of hyperbolic shouting and Big Inspirational Speeches. He's a man down on his luck, and he's got a break in front of him. Edgerton is great at showing us a man who is trying his hardest, without turning it into an out-sized acting clinic.
The supporting players are handled with similar care. Nolte is better here than he's been in years. Sure, casting him as a drunk seems about as much a no-brainer as casting Harvey Fierstein as a raspy-voiced, middle-aged gay Jew, and yet even Nolte avoids overplaying it. His breakdowns, his heartache, all of it feels real, and for once, you feel sympathetic for an aging drunk without feeling horribly manipulated.
That same sense of realism trickles on down the cast. Brendan's wife (Jennifer Morrison) isn't some shrill harpy, trying to crush her husband's dreams, nor is she unwilling to understand his need to compete, to fight for his family. The principal at Brendan's high school (Kevin Dunn), who could have easily become a sneering villain, misunderstanding of Brendan's plight, is anything but. Hell, even the preternatural bad ass bad guy MMA fighter, a hulking Russian named Koba (played, ironically, by former WWE wrestler Kurt Angle) isn't some Ivan Drago villain. He's just another fighter who happens to be really, really good at what he does.
That O'Connor so often avoids specific character cliches while embracing others in his plot is, occasionally, maddening. O'Connor loves his sports-as-emotional-metaphor moments, building to a final sequence that is so unbelievably on-the-nose, you practically want to scream out at the screen, "Oh, come on!" And yet, for as ridiculous as it is, that funny emotion at the bottom of your big, black heart, that warming sensation that you try so hard to suppress, refuses to stay down. These characters feel real, and even if the situations don't necessarily keep pace, you root for them just as you would any great movie character. Warrior is, at once, an imperfect story perfectly told. See it for the performances, and bring some tissues. Just don't let anyone hear you sob too loudly.
Tom Hardy is an MMA fighter son of an alcoholic boxer father (Nick Nolte), and we are clearly a long way away from Hardy's days as a skinny Captain Picard clone.
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